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Before Burnout

by Allison Martin

Most of my childhood was spent with my nose in a book. I loved going to my grandma’s house, and not surprisingly a bookshelf greeted you no sooner than stepping inside. Standing guard on top of that bookcase was an antique oil lamp. As the years rolled past and my reading material went from picture books to the American classics, it manned its post. I never thought much about it. I guess I assumed a reading nook of any quality should have an antique oil lamp on the shelf, just to set the mood.

I never knew the history behind it, whether it held sentimental value, or if my grandma just thought it was pretty. I always assumed that it served some purpose, like if by chance the power went out and all the flashlight batteries in the house followed suit.

I know better now, though. That oil lamp was a decoration, nothing more. Anyone depending on that lamp in a power outage would have been sorely disappointed. A lit match would actually have done more harm to that lamp than good because the wick would have been reduced to a pile of smoking ashes. It was a beautiful lamp. But it had no oil.

The oil in the lamp was the power to fulfill its purpose. If you try to keep the flame burning after the oil is gone, the wick itself begins to burn. But it was not designed to be the fuel for the fire, but only to hold the fuel. The wick in itself cannot sustain the fire. Without the oil flowing through it, the wick will be destroyed in the process. The inevitable result of a flame with no oil is burnout.

A lamp with a low oil supply would begin to dim, and then smolder. The flame flickers and then gradually dies. Fire is replaced with smoke - a sure sign that something is wrong.

Though this isn’t the picture of what we’d like our spiritual life to look like, sometimes it’s reality. And if it’s your reality today, rest assured that God knows just how to handle someone hurdling towards burnout.

Some 700 years before the Word came and dwelt among us, Isaiah was inspired to tell us what He would be like. Among many other characteristics, one rises above the rest as a comfort to those running on empty:

“A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench...”

(Isaiah 42:3)

The smoking flax that the prophet is referring to is a lamp wick on the verge of being extinguished. It is smoldering and smoking, almost as a last-ditch effort to keep a flame alive. The smoking flax is a snapshot of the moment before burnout.

I approach this topic gently because those who find themselves nearing burnout usually have the best of intentions. They find themselves here only because they want to give, even if they don’t have anything left. For the sake of those they love and minister to, they want to keep things moving. They want to keep the fire burning, even if it kills them. And it may be doing just that.

They are doing what they’ve faithfully done, yet without the results they once saw. They still teach the class, they still knock on the doors, and they still invest and pray and sacrifice. They can’t let down their kids or give up the bus route. If they don’t do nursing home or children’s church, who will? One day blurs into another as they push themselves to keep leading, keep pushing, keep fighting. Just one more day. So the fire burns on, though the reservoir ran dry a long time ago. The lamp is still burning, but it is producing no light. Frustration builds and apathy creeps in.

What’s the point?

I really just don’t care anymore.

I can’t keep doing this.

All I want is out.

That’s not weakness. That’s not selfishness. That’s burnout.

And here’s the beautiful promise God gave us before we ever took our first breath: Jesus didn’t come to put your dying fire out.

He’s not looking for an opportunity to shut you down. He’s waiting for an invitation to fill you back up.

Because that’s the real problem, isn’t it? That the oil has run out. We blame it on a lot of other things - usually ourselves first, then the circumstances around us.

The problem is not with the lamp, nor with its environment. The enemy loves to distract us from the main issue by making us feel like there is just something wrong with us. No, a lamp on the verge of burnout is as capable to fulfill its purpose as it has ever been. It is not a quality problem. It is a fuel problem.

The Holy Ghost is so much more than just the feelings He may cause within us. He is our Helper, our Guide, our Teacher, and our Power. His anointing is likened to oil for a reason. God’s Spirit is the fuel that keeps our passion burning.

The moment right before burnout is critical. More hangs in the balance than we can even realize. I understand that situations get so complicated, and I can’t possibly fix in one blog post what led you to this point.

All I have to offer is a suggestion. If you find yourself on the edge of burnout, seek a fresh experience in God’s presence. Not for anyone else. Just for you. Silence the distractions and push past voices of fear that say you’re too far gone. Doubt is a liar- your story doesn’t have to end this way. Restoration is not just a possibility. It is one moment in God’s presence from being a reality. God is not interested in putting you out or leaving you hanging. Open your heart to the moving of His Spirit, and get ready to have your fire back.

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